Parenthood is often rife with big opinions, and uncertain choices. Even little mundane daily decisions are often painted as having massive repercussions for our kids’ health and development. And as we finally make our way through the breastmilk vs bottle debate, we’re faced with another big dilemma about how to wean. Currently, Canadian guidelines suggest that babies be exclusively breastfed or formula-fed for the first 6 months, after which you can begin introducing solids. By a year old, baby is able to be transitioned off of breastmilk or formula if desired, and up to 16 oz of dairy milk can be introduced. Whole cow’s milk has been cited by health authorities as the gold standard thanks to its calcium, vitamin D, protein and fat. A cup of 3.25% whole milk contains 160 calories, 8 grams protein, 9 grams fat, 30% DV calcium, 45% DV Vitamin D, plus 16 other essential vitamins and nutrients essential for an infant’s or toddler’s growth.
But what if your child isn’t tolerating cow’s milk well?
Constipation, diarrhea, reflux and gas are all constant topics of conversation between parents and their healthcare team, and as a dietitian and mom of two, I can attest that diet absolutely plays a big role. So what are your alternatives for your baby? Here’s a breakdown of some good and not-so-good options.
A2 Protein Milk
Like adults, some infants and children complain of tummy troubles after a glass of traditional dairy milk. And while a lot of us will just assume it’s the lactose causing the issue, new emerging research suggests that it may actually be a unique protein found in most dairy milk called the A1 beta-casein protein. This is where a2 milk™ comes in. a2 milk™ milk tastes, smells, looks and performs exactly like traditional dairy milk, except it contains only the A2 beta-casein protein instead of the A1 protein. Thankfully, a lot of families without diagnosed lactose intolerance find they can finally enjoy milk again when consuming dairy without the A1 protein. A cup of a2 milk™ contains 160 calories, 9 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein, 23% DV Calcium, 13% DV Vitamin D, and the same 16 other essential vitamins and nutrients as traditional dairy milk. If you or your family members are looking for the benefits and flavour of true dairy without the tummy troubles, and are not diagnosed with lactose intolerance, definitely give a2 milk™ a try.
For families who are avoiding animal products or who are diagnosed with lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy, unsweetened soy milk is considered the best option for growing children. While not as high in calories and fat, soy milk is the closest in nutritional profile to the gold standard dairy. A cup of unsweetened soy milk contains 90 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein, 30% calcium and 45% vitamin D. When choosing a soy milk product, look for one without added flavour or sugar and compare labels to find one with the highest amount of calcium and vitamin D. It’s also important to note that a lot of children who present with dairy allergy may also have an allergy to soy, so always speak to your pediatrician to find out if soy is a suitable choice.
Goat milk is often touted as a good milk alternative for kids who are unable to tolerate traditional cows milk. Goat milk has a grassy, earthy flavour that is slightly different than traditional dairy cows milk. But nutritionally, they’re fairly similar with a cup of goats milk containing 178 calories, 9 grams of protein, 11 grams of fat, 7% DV Vitamin D and 33% DV Calcium. It has slightly less lactose compared to cow milk (11 grams vs 12 grams) and about 90% less A1 beta-casein protein than traditional dairy milk but more A1 protein compared to A2 milk (which is completely A1 protein-free). When choosing goat milk, compare labels and look for one with the highest amount of vitamin D.
Pea-based products have gained a lot of popularity in the past few years, likely because it’s a rich source of protein with a neutral flavour that can be easily added to various food and drinks. In the United States, pea milk is fortified with the essential nutrients for growing babies (calcium and vitamin D) making it a suitable dairy-free alternative to cow’s milk. But in Canada, pea milk is not fortified so most pediatricians will not recommend it as a routine milk substitute for kids. A cup of unfortified pea milk in Canada contains about 80 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein, 8% Calcium DV and 0% Vitamin D DV. If you choose to incorporate pea milk into your child’s diet, be sure to choose an unsweetened variety and supplement their diet with other foods rich in calcium and vitamin D.
As one of the most popular non-dairy milks on store shelves, almond milk has a neutral, mild nutty flavour. A cup of almond milk has 30 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein, 45% DV Vitamin D, and 30% DV Calcium. Since it is so low in calories, fat and protein however, it’s not recommended as an alternative to cow’s milk as there is concern that it may crowd out other important foods with greater nutrient density. If you choose to incorporate cashew milk into your baby’s diet, choose an unsweetened option, limit consumption, and offer a variety of other high fat, high protein foods.
An alternative to the ever-so-popular almond milk, cashew milk has a mild, neutral, lightly sweet flavour. A cup of cashew milk contains just 25 calories, 2 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein, 45% DV Vitamin D and 30% DV Calcium. Like almond milk, because cashew milk is so low in calories, fat and protein, it’s not recommended to be a substantial part of a baby’s diet out of concern that it will displace other important foods with greater nutrient density. If you choose to incorporate cashew milk into your baby’s diet, choose an unsweetened option, limit consumption, and offer a variety of other high fat, high protein foods.
Oat milk has become a fan favourite in trendy coffee shops for its creamy, naturally sweet and toasty flavour. A cup of unsweetened oat milk contains 110 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 4 grams of protein, 45% DV Vitamin D and 30% DV Calcium. It’s important to note, however, that a lot of oat milk brands do contain a lot of added sugars, so be sure to read the label carefully to choose an unsweetened option. It’s also important that if you choose oat milk for your family that you supplement with other foods that are rich in fat and protein.
Coconut milk is a popular option amongst adults who enjoy its creamy, sweet, tropical flavour. When fortified, it is rich in calcium and vitamin D, but it’s still a lower calorie choice. A cup of coconut milk (from a bottle or tripack, not from a can) contains about 50 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 0 protein, 45% DV Vitamin D and 30% DV Calcium. If you choose to incorporate coconut milk into your child’s diet, limit the quantity so as not to displace nutrient-dense foods and beverages, choose an unsweetened variety and supplement their diet with foods rich in fat and protein. It’s also important to note that while the canned variety of coconut milk (with the cream on top) is higher in calories and fat, it is typically not fortified with calcium or vitamin D as an alternative to dairy milk.
Hemp is trendy nutrient-dense seed that in its food form is rich in heart-healthy omega 3s, fibre and protein. However, most hemp milks are lower in calories, protein and fat, and many are not fortified with bone-building nutrients. A cup of hemp milk contains about 60 calories, 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of protein, and no calcium or vitamin D. The flavour of hemp milk is often described as nutty, earthy and creamy. If you choose to incorporate hemp milk into your child’s diet, limit the quantity so as not to displace nutrient-dense foods and beverages, choose an unsweetened variety and supplement their diet with foods rich in calcium, vitamin D, fat and protein.
While flaxmeal as a food is rich in omega 3s, fibre and protein for your child’s diet, flax milk is typically quite low calories and protein, and therefore, not ideal in large amounts. A cup of flax milk contains 25 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 0 grams of protein with 25% DV Vitamin D and 30% DV Calcium. The flavour of flax milk is often described as nutty and earthy. If you choose to incorporate flax milk into your child’s diet, limit the quantity so as not to displace nutrient-dense foods and beverages, choose an unsweetened variety and supplement their diet with foods rich in fat and protein.
Finding a good milk alternative for your baby or toddler can take some experimentation, and the right option for you will depend on what other foods are consistently offered in your child’s diet, the rationale for avoiding traditional cow’s milk, and the flavour and consistency your family will accept and enjoy. If your child is struggling with digestive issues after consuming traditional milk, speak to your pediatrician or dietitian for more individualized care.